The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion GOP attacks on Ketanji Brown Jackson could give Democrats a big opening

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
4 min

Since President Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Republicans have been debating just how far they want to go in opposing her. Many in the Senate are being cautious so far, while outside groups and conservative media are already lobbing insults and insinuations, with some engaged in open race-baiting.

The historic nature of Jackson’s nomination hangs over it all. And so do the midterm elections.

As one GOP strategist admitted, one way Republicans can “screw up” their chances is "to go scorched earth.” If GOP attacks on Jackson are perceived by Democratic voters — particularly Black voters — as racially coded, it could drive Democrats to the polls.

And so, if Republicans do open that door, Democrats should not refrain from calling out the GOP insinuations for what they really are — not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it will clarify the stakes of the election.

From outside the Senate, scorched earth is exactly what we’ve gotten already. The Republican National Committee called her a “radical, left-wing activist," and one conservative radio and TV host said she’s “a crazed, radical left-wing hack.”

We’ve also already seen open race-baiting, and, not surprisingly, this has come from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. He said her nomination would “defile” the justice system and demanded to see her LSAT scores, because she couldn’t possibly have gotten into Harvard Law School legitimately, let alone been qualified for this position.

In reality, Jackson excelled at Harvard; clerked on the district, circuit and Supreme Court levels; worked as a public defender; and was a district court and appeals court judge. Her qualifications match or exceed those of every justice now sitting on the court.

So the fact that her “qualifications” are being questioned no doubt has Black people across the country shaking their heads in recognition. They know that African Americans who achieve in White-dominated fields will always have their intelligence and qualifications questioned. Sometimes they even face demands to show their birth certificate.

In more racial coding, conservatives have also homed in on an affirmative action case involving Harvard, in preparation for bludgeoning Jackson for her ties to the university; look for them to angrily demand her recusal. The fact that Justices John G. Roberts Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Elena Kagan also attended Harvard doesn’t seem to be a matter of concern.

So Democrats should not hesitate to call out any racist and sexist attacks on Jackson as such.

To gauge the possibilities for Democrats here, a new poll from HIT Strategies, which probes public attitudes among minority groups, seeks to determine how African Americans would react to such attacks.

It finds that 54 percent of Black voters would be more motivated to vote in the midterms if Jackson faces an unfair confirmation process. It also finds that 65 percent of Black voters don’t trust Senate Republicans to treat her fairly.

“This is a major opportunity for Democrats to not only support an enormously qualified diverse candidate in Judge Jackson, but to show why it’s important to vote for Democrats in the midterms,” Roshni Nedungadi, a partner at HIT Strategies, tells us.

One way to make this effective, Nedungadi notes, is to connect this to people’s lived experiences. For instance, Democrats might highlight the fact that Republicans oppose an African American nominee for the court precisely because she would challenge conservative jurisprudence that will continue to restrict voting access.

As it is, a surprisingly large percentage of Black voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of voting rights — 26 percent in the HIT Strategies poll. So going hard at Republicans here might remind voters where the two parties stand on some of the most fundamental questions involving race and American democracy.

It’s plausible that Jackson’s nomination could mobilize Democratic voters for both positive and negative reasons. It’s a historic event that reminds those voters that important things happen when Democrats are in charge. And it might show Republicans at their worst, highlighting what the consequences of them winning one or both houses of Congress could be.

We can’t know for sure whether that’s how things will turn out, but we do know that, presented with an opportunity for race-baiting, Republicans are loath to turn it down. That’s true even if they say “We aren’t talking about race, we’re just talking about crime and affirmative action!”

Perhaps Republicans will make Jackson’s confirmation a dignified, substantive debate about the future of American jurisprudence. But if they go a different way, Democrats should be ready to go after them as aggressively as possible.